There was no instant classic in Death Valley on Saturday between two teams that have dominated the ACC for all but one year of this decade.
Still, the Clemson-Florida State rivalry game meant something. The Tigers (9-1) wrapped up a berth in the ACC Championship Game with a 31-14 victory against the Seminoles.
“We made it hard,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I felt like we should have had 24 at the half, maybe 28. We had a few other opportunities that we just didn’t capitalize on.”
Regardless, they’ll face Miami in Charlotte on Dec. 2. It’s Clemson’s third consecutive win in the series with FSU and third consecutive ACC Atlantic Division crown.
If FSU had won, the Seminoles (3-9) would have had zero shot at a championship.
The final score, though, wasn’t indicative of the flow of Saturday’s game, although it might’ve been a microcosm of these teams' seasons. Before scoring touchdowns on two consecutive drives late in the fourth quarter, Clemson had less than 300 yards of total offense and was leading by just a field goal with about 10 minutes to play.
The surprising part was not that it was a close game late. It was why. The Tigers offense didn’t have much juice for most of the night.
The Clemson defense was playing without several stars, including defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, safety Tanner Muse and linebacker Kendall Joseph. An already depleted secondary lost its best defensive back, senior Ryan Carter, to injury in the second half. Linebacker Tre Lamar suffered a stinger.
All that helped FSU, which has looked inept offensively for much of 2017 behind freshman quarterback James Blackman and a struggling offensive line, chip away at a 17-0 first-half deficit, but it never should have.
Clemson QB Kelly Bryant missed too many big pass plays for the second consecutive week. Receiver Deon Cain dropped a sure touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, so it wasn’t all on Bryant.
That could doom the Tigers at some point, but it didn’t Saturday.
“At the end of the day, you play four quarters for a reason,” Swinney said. “Good teams win games like that.”
The fourth-ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings is still alive, and its resume received a big boost with No. 10 Auburn’s 40-17 win against No. 1 Georgia on Saturday. The Tigers won an ugly game over those SEC Tigers in Week 2.
Does Clemson look like a top-4 team right now? That’s in in the eye of the beholder. The resume looks solid, but this is an era of human evaluation, not complicated computer formulas, so the Tigers just have to keep winning. That should earn them another playoff spot.
“We’ve been through it. We’ve done it the last two years, having to play and win every week,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “We don’t really worry about all that stuff. We worry about how we play.”
However, style points do matter, and the Tigers didn’t get many against Florida State. It’s hard for Clemson to keep that and having no margin for error, thanks to an October loss at Syracuse, in perspective.
“I know it is,” Wilkins said. “We’ve experienced it, so we’ve gotten an opportunity to learn from that. Also, it’s up to the leadership on the team … to make sure everyone is staying locked in. We can’t think about anything but ourselves, our game plan and the game that’s ahead.”
A game like Saturday – when not everything goes well, injuries mount up and an ugly game against a rival ensues – exposes how difficult that can be. Still, Clemson won without being at its best.
This is not the Tigers of 2016 (or even 2015). This is a different version that wins a different way.
The same can’t be said for Florida State. And there’s a lot to be said for the consistency the Tigers are producing, style points or not.